So Apparently I am A Tenther, And Probably A Truther And A Birther

This is something I very rarely say — Ramesh Ponnuru is completely right about something. Ponnuru skewers this very silly article by Ian Millhiser at, in which Millhiser seeks to smear a limited-government interpretation of the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by association with Michelle Bachmann, birthers, and every other form of far-right insipid nuttiness.

The Tenth Amendment, you might remember, says this:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Tenth Amendment is close to a dead letter in American jurisprudence; the unrestrained growth of the federal government reflects that modern courts have refused to find that it acts as any sort of brake on federal power. On the relatively rare modern occasions when the Supreme Court has found that the federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers, it has done so by interpreting the purported source of authority (such as the Commerce Clause). But many people feel this is incorrect. Is it the only possible reading of the Constitution? No. But it's an entirely plausible and principled one.

Millhiser is full of scorn for people who think that the Tenth Amendment might actually mean something — that it might prevent the federal government from exercising powers not specifically delegated to it. Millhiser expresses this scorn by dismissing limited-government advocates as "tenthers" (in an explicit attempt to associate them with truthers and birthers):

These efforts are all part of a movement whose members are convinced that the 10th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits spending programs and regulations disfavored by conservatives. Indeed, while "birther" conspiracy theorists dominate the airwaves with tales of a mystical Kenyan baby smuggled into Hawaii just days after his birth, these "tenther" constitutionalists offer a theory that is no less radical but infinitely more dangerous.

Tentherism, in a nutshell, proclaims that New Deal-era reformers led an unlawful coup against the "True Constitution," exploiting Depression-born desperation to expand the federal government's powers beyond recognition.

In other words, if you believe in limited government, constrained by the enumerated powers of the constitution, you are part of the lunatic fringe. The only "normal" viewpoint is the one that Congress can do pretty much whatever it wants. Note that the New Republic has also picked up on the "tenther" slur.

Ponnuru immediately seizes upon the most ludicrous part of Millhiser's rant:

More important, there is something fundamentally authoritarian about the tenther constitution. Social Security, Medicare, and health-care reform are all wildly popular, yet the tenther constitution would shackle our democracy and forbid Congress from enacting the same policies that the American people elected them to advance.

This is transcendentally silly and almost perfectly Orwellian. It's authoritarian to believe that central government authority should be strictly limited to the enumerated powers in the Constitution? It's authoritarian to limit the government from doing things when those things are "wildly popular"? That sounds to me like the essence of anti-authoritarian constitutional government. Millhiser sneers that conservatives pushing for courts to interpret the Tenth Amendment meaningfully are contradicting their standard rhetoric about "judicial activitsm." Whether or not that is true (and that's an entirely different post), Millhiser is unconsciously echoing decades of authoritarian, pro-"law-and-order", pro-censorship rhetoric from the far right. Millhiser sounds exactly like the folks who thought it was authoritarian to, for instance, overturn extremely popular flag-burning laws under the First Amendment.

The pieces in Prospect and the New Republic reflect that our level of national discourse continues to suck. People who use "tenther" are on a par with the asswipes who insist on saying "Democrat Party."

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. An American says

    Sick of the labels, sick of the right or left, sick of the main downstream media making profits dividing and controlling Americans.

    I'm an American for damn sakes… to hell with the rest of the divided.

  2. Proud Southerner says

    Why is it that liberals criticize others for being bigots and racists when it is they who cannot break free of having to label and categorize people? What happened to the melting pot? Why aren't we just Americans with differences? I don't give a damn what your skin color is or who you sleep with. Just don't shove it in my face or ask me to give up my liberties for your life choices. You are no better or worse and deserve no special treatments or freedoms over what my Constitution grants me.

  3. says

    Ken, I think you take a perfectly smart and reasonable argument regarding the tenth amendment and cloaking it in the victim hood of the so called and widely ridiculed "tenthers." Unlike a "tenther" (or a "birther" or "truther" or whatever), you can actually hold an intelligent and well articulated thought about the topic at hand. But your fellow sufferers of liberal "-er" scorn? I'll bet 99% of them didn't know what the tenth amendment said (or what it related to) until their preferred self-reaffirming media demagogue "informed" them. As it became an useful weapon in the shit-flinging approach to oppositional politics the current right wing is addicted to.

    I'm not sure why your grouping yourself with the stupid people, never mind taking umbrage with their cause.

  4. says

    @Proud Southerner: Perhaps, given your screen name, you should not complain about those "who cannot break free of having to label and categorize people." WTF do you think a name like "Proud Southerner" serves the purpose of?

    Also, where, when, why and how have you been asked to surrender a liberty in deference to another person or group's "life choice?" And what, exactly, does your Constitution "grant" you?

  5. says

    jack, every protest — left or right, mainstream or fringe — is going to have a lot of ignorant louts. The non-ignorant non-louts have jobs, and hobbies. You'll find just as many people at anti-war (or other "liberal") protests with no clue what they are talking about. So if your characterization is accurate, it is not unique.

    The "tenther" slur is not aimed only at people on the Mall waving signs. It's also aimed at representatives and commentators.

  6. JimAbs says

    Millhiser: "Tentherism, in a nutshell, proclaims that New Deal-era reformers led an unlawful coup against the “True Constitution,” exploiting Depression-born desperation to expand the federal government’s powers beyond recognition."

    FDR knew better than to let a good crisis go to waste.

  7. John David Galt says

    I'd like to thank Millhiser for putting a label to what I have always believed in.
    Now let's form the Tenther Party and get the Great Rollback started. It's about time.

  8. Joshua says

    I didn't realize that "Democrat Party" was pejorative until I read the wiki. Interesting. Millhiser is an asshat liberal; i.e. he doesn't know what he's writing about. Maybe he's right, though, I mean, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Mao all opposed Social Security and Medicare. And they all supported low taxes.


  1. […] Bloody fucking right I would strip away the very reforms and regulations which caused and prolonged the Great Depression and are currently taking us into the "Greatest Recession Since The Great Depression TM".  And yes, you bet your fucking lazy welfare riding ass that I want to hamstring "progressive" (read: determined by popularity polls) legislation. . . . if you believe in limited government, constrained by the enumerated powers of the constitution… […]